What Did GM and NHTSA Know Using OnStar Data for Safety Recalls?
Today an excellent article in the NY Times sheds light on the important questions of what and when did GM and NHTSA know (and could and should have known) about defective vehicles using OnStar data?
“As General Motors overhauls its approach to safety, one powerful tool may be a technology that dates back two decades — the OnStar in-car assistance system.
Yet in the automaker’s recent flurry of recalls, with new safety problems announced in millions of cars, the automaker says none were prompted by analysis of the voluminous OnStar data it collects. And the company declined to discuss how it is using OnStar to investigate safety problems, citing competitive reasons. It would say only that OnStar is being used to notify owners of G.M. vehicles about the recent recalls, which now have reached about 29 million for the year….
At the heart of the OnStar system is a link to the vehicle’s computerized brain, which collects more than 1,000 separate measurements on virtually every aspect of the vehicle’s health. What are the fluid levels? How is the engine running? Are the air bags functioning? Did they just deploy?
Subscribers who receive OnStar’s monthly diagnostic emails see a few dozen of those measurements. G.M. itself gets them all. The company can analyze that data, looking across thousands or even millions of vehicles in search of safety problems. But G.M. remains tight-lipped about how it uses OnStar data.
“OnStar, like many other parts of G.M., will be leveraged, where applicable, as part of the larger company efforts to improve the overall quality, safety and total ownership experience related to its vehicles,” a G.M. spokeswoman, Kelly Cusinato, said in a statement.
Jack R. Nerad, senior analyst at the auto research firm Kelley Blue Book, said that some at G.M. might be worried that if OnStar data analysis became a significant way to spot safety problems, the company could face pressure to share its methods and even its technology.
“You could have people start asking, why shouldn’t everyone benefit from this?” he said….
G.M. would not comment, for instance, on how OnStar data could be used to track moving stalls — which after years of being labeled a matter of “convenience” are now considered a safety problem.
But a former OnStar employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that while the system might not capture data on the ignition switches specifically at issue in numerous recent recalls, other data points could, in theory, act as proxies for detecting stalls….
“If you look for the engine being off, while at the same time the car shift is in drive, then that’s one way,” he said….
While much automotive research is done in a lab, at a proving ground or with company-owned vehicles, OnStar allowed G.M. researchers to analyze how tens of thousands of real-world vehicles performed over time.
“This approach represents a new, useful approach to assessing field crash rates, potentially providing better estimates of field effectiveness than has been possible through current approaches,” the 2011 study concluded….
“We’re all a little in the dark,” said James S. Rogers, a lawyer based in Seattle who is representing clients in cases related to the G.M. ignition switch recalls. He said that consumers should be told specifically if G.M. uses their data to root out safety problems, and if so, how.
Mr. Toprak, the Cars.com analyst, said G.M. might be keeping silent about OnStar’s role in its current safety efforts to avoid public pressure.
“It might open up the discussion that G.M. knows everything, that they’re capturing all of this data, but they’re not doing anything about it,” he said.